So you want to take your family on a road-trip down the Pacific Coast Highway? This ultimate family vacation guide along Highway 1 will help you plan for it — focusing specifically on the areas of Pebble Beach, Big Sur, and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Why should you zero in on this stretch of the PCH? Even though Pebble Beach needs no introduction to its famous course and jaw-dropping grounds, I was not quite expecting it to also sweep a non-golfing gal off her feet. For most golfers, Pebble Beach is an obvious “bucket-list” destination, but even if you don’t plan to splurge for a round, penciling in a visit is well worth your time (even just for a lunch stop overlooking the 18th hole). Additionally, it’s the perfect “starting line” to drive south on Highway 1, along the rugged California coast to Big Sur.
Highway 1 has long attracted family adventure seekers, dedicated hikers, and nature lovers; it has a little bit of everything and at the very least, will deliver on the promise to be one of the most scenic drives of your life! If you want to plan a family vacation along Highway 1 to Big Sur, Pebble Beach and Carmel, this guide will detail everything you need to know to prepare.
For your Planning Purposes
Getting there: San Francisco. Oakland, and San Jose International airports are approximately 2 hours away. There is also a regional airport in Monterey.
Getting around: A trip to Big Sur and Carmel is all about the outdoor adventures. You'll need to rent a car for your drive along Highway 1, and for access to hikes and beaches.
When to visit: This stretch of HIghway 1 is breathtaking year round, but the high season is April-October. Many people visit during summer months, but keep in mind that there can be dense coastal fog in the summer. My favorite time to visit is October.
What to do in/near Big Sur and Carmel
Highlights if you're in a hurry!
- Road trip along Highway 1 - Driving this famous route is a must-do for your ultimate family vacation! You could easily spend every day exploring the lookouts, hikes, and beaches. Many people camp or stay in hotels directly in the wilderness. For us, Highway 1 was the perfect nap-time excursion. We spent 2 hours heading south, stopping to explore McWay Falls, and Bixby Bridge, and then turned back to Carmel in late afternoon.
- Explore the 17 mile drive at sunrise: Admittingly, I would not have embarked on the famous 17 mile drive at sunrise if it were an adults-only vacation. However, good ol’ jet lag made for an early rising baby, so by 6am we were ready to explore! In retrospect, I am thrilled that we woke up, because the drive at this time of day (few tourists) became one of our favorite vacation memories.
- Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium: I first experienced the Monterey Bay Aquarium when I was 14 years old, and was blown away by the exhibits and experience (it’s not easy to impress a teenage girl who only wanted to listen to the new NSYNC CD). I always knew I’d come back here one day with my own kids. At 17 months old, did Claire understand the penguin feeding? No. She thought everyone was clapping for her running across the stage. But, that’s okay. She had a blast, and I had a blast. We were bummed when it was time to depart for nap time. Said simply, a family vacation along Highway 1 is not complete without a stop at the aquarium.
- Exploring the shops at Carmel-by-the-Sea: Carmel-by-the-Sea is a hotspot for art galleries, and there’s a little something style-wise for everyone. The stores are conveniently clustered together, making it easy to stroll from shop to shop. One afternoon, I ambitiously set out to go "art hunting" with my toddler trailing behind. She mostly loved running in and out of the storybook-like buildings. If you’re not in the market for art, I’d still recommend exploring Carmel-by-the-Sea; there are other boutique stores, wine tastings around every corner, and plenty of restaurants.
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Luxury Accomodations in Big Sur, Pebble Beach & Carmel
There are plenty of lodging options for your family vacation along Highway 1. If you're looking for larger resorts with plenty of onsite family amenities, you can find it here. Alternatively, if something smaller and more boutique is your style, that's no problem either. We opted for a bit of both for our week vacation.
- The Lodge at Pebble Beach - Unlike some other golf resorts, where it’s necessary to play a round to see the post-card perfect views, the stunning scenery of the greens overlooking the Pacific coastline are eye-candy for every visitor. If you’re staying at the resort as a non-golfer, there are still plenty of family activities to keep you busy. While my husband golfed, Claire and I enjoyed morning stroller walks through the hotel grounds, stopped to spot the wildlife, and shopped in hotel boutiques.
- Bernardus Lodge and Spa - Bernardus Lodge is a more intimate wine country retreat, tucked in between vineyards of Carmel Valley. It's a smaller boutique hotel that has familiy amenities such as a pool, hot tub, small garden, spa, and croquet court. It’s also only a 10-15 minute drive from downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the start of Highway 1.
I Also Considered These Hotels
- Inn at Spanish Bay - This hotel has a prime spot along the 17 Mile Drive. You’re just around the corner from miles of beaches where you can watch surfers catch some waves, or sea lions bask on Seal Rock. After a day in the sun, enjoy dinner on the spacious patio, and keep an ear open for the bagpiper who visits every night.
- Carmel Valley Ranch - You’re just a few miles away from downtown Carmel! Here you’ll find spacious rooms for families, a private golf course, and an on-site creamery!
- Hyatt Carmel Highlands - With easy access to both Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Highway 1, it’s easy to see why this hotel is a popular pick among families and luxury travelers. You’re perched high above the Pacific Ocean, with panoramic views and beautiful rooms.
Hotels for an Adults-Only Escape
- Ventana- This all inclusive romantic getaway has sweeping views of the Pacific, rooms surrounded by redwoods, and is all about unplugging and unwinding. Children are not allowed as guests on property (but families are welcome to come to the restaurants).
- Post Ranch Inn - This hotel is at the top of my “someday honey” bucket-list! Here you’ll be glamping 1,200 feet about the Pacific Ocean, in rustic rooms built directly into the mountain coastline. Best described as a “sanctuary for the soul,” Post Ranch Inn is all about getting you to reset, recharge, and relax. You’ll be able to experience the wilderness, all from the comfort of a luxurious bed. Children under 18 are not allowed.
- L’Auberge Carmel - This Relais and Chateaux property is located in the heart of downtown Carmel. You’re just around the corner from the shops, and only a few minutes walk from the beach. Although L’Auberge Carmel does welcome children, there are no family suite room options
The Best Restaurants along Highway 1
Restaurants Near Pebble Beach
- Roy’s - Ever have one of those meals that just stays with you forever? Our foodie memory of the trip happened at Roy’s. Located at the Inn at Spanish Bay, Roy’s overlooks the ocean nestled along the 17 mile drive, and has multiple fire pits sprinkled throughout the patio. The restaurant specializes in Hawaiian-fusion, and our family of 3 had the perfect night of eating sushi, listening to the nightly bagpiper, and watching the sunset. There’s plenty of room to pull up a stroller, and sit and relax!
Resturants on the Pacific Coast Highway
- Big Sur Bakery - You’ve hit the jackpot for delicious sandwiches, salads, tea, coffee and pastries. You’ll want to stop here for a snack or lunch to go as you explore hiking trails nearby. I walked in to get a “quick bite,” and came out with fresh bread, a sandwich and 3 teamugs. The pottery in the store by Sanny Ceramics is exquisite!
- The Sur House at Ventana Hotel - The Sur House is well known for its expansive ocean views of the Pacific Ocean, which isn't a bad spot to enjoy one of their famous shrimp rolls. Even though the hotel is adults-only, kids are welcome to dine at the restaurant.
- Nestled right along the cliffside, Nepenthe has 60 miles of ocean views in every direction. Expect to wait in long lines, but it is a kid friendly spot and has a great vibe. They are well known for their delicious burgers.
- Another good option for a quick lunch is Coast Big Sur. If you’re trekking along Highway 1 and craving a picnic inspired meal, then pull over for sandwiches, pastries, and other treats at this local shop.
- A popular stop for...well, just about any type of traveler...is Big Sur River Inn and Restaurant. Come with the kids, grab some American fare food, and dip your toes in the water as you eat.
- Lastly, if you’ve left the kiddos behind, splurge for a Michelin star meal at Sierra Mar.
Tips for traveling to Big Sur and Carmel
- Big Sur is not a town: Big Sur refers more to a region, and specifically a stretch of 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon. There is little to no civilization along the way.
- Keep your garbage in your car: There aren’t many places to dispose litter along Highway 1 -- this isn’t exactly an easy highway for sanitation trucks to maneuver. Keep a plastic bag for your trash in your car, and dispose when you return to your hotel.
- Fill up on gas, and use the bathroom before you hit the road: There is 1 gas station after you leave Carmel, heading south along Highway 1. It’s expensive! Also, there aren’t many public restrooms. Plan for a potty break before you start the journey.
- There is limited cell service: It’s a good idea to download any saved Google Maps of the area, just in case you lose service.
- Photography tips: Sunsets are the best time to see the coastline shine. Try to time your drive down Highway 1 for late afternoon.
- You are in the wild, which means wild things happen: It is fairly common for there to be mudslides or wildfires. Make sure to check for updates.
- Make reservations ASAP: Hotel, camping/glamping spots, and restaurant reservations fill up quickly. So make your plan now!
- Be prepared for fluctuating temperatures: Even in the summer months, mornings and evenings can be quite chilly. Bring layers.
- Is it safe to drive? Yes, Highway 1 is safe to drive, but there are many hairpin turns, and you need to watch the road! Use only the designated turnouts for any photos.
- Not a swimming spot. Are you envisioning pulling over, jumping into the water, and swimming around? Not in this neck of the woods! The currents are very strong so it's not advisable to swim. Stick to hiking -- there are hundreds of trails!
- Be prepared for golf gawkers at Pebble Beach: Not only is Pebble Beach one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, but it’s also a stop along the 17 Mile Drive. That means…tour buses. They do come, they do take photos, and then they leave. Be prepared for some light crowds during the day as people make their way onto the green to snap their own iconic photo. I can’t blame them!
That's a Wrap
This was a vacation that I could do over-and-over again, without ever changing a thing, and I would love it each and every time. The surrounding area of Monterey Bay also offers plenty to do with families, and next time I'm in town I'd really like to go whale watching.
I hope this article has inspired your own family getaway to Big Sur and Carmel. If you have any questions, or your own travel tips, please leave them in the comments below. Also, don't forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter, packed with travel tips, upcoming news, and access to FREE destination itineraries.
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